LEEHY GERTNER/SAGAMORE STAFF
Five figures stood, illuminated, against the wall. Their hands were lifted in surrender, and their faces looked on ahead. Even before the gunshots rang out, what was about to happen was very clear.
For the past hour and a half, the students onstage had taken themselves back in time, filling the room with tangible anticipation and bringing raw emotion into every scene.
Such was the effect of “The Citizens,” written and directed by seniors Naomi Mirny and Freddy Sell and performed in the Black Box on Friday, Jan. 31. “The Citizens” is a historical play about the White Rose, a resistance group led by German students during World War II. The play was masterfully written to feature key moments from the students’ work in 1942-43, intertwined with the story of a rebellious young woman in 1992 who is just discovering the White Rose for herself.
The play begins in 1992 with Violet Falk (junior Niovi Rahme), a University of Munich student who finds work archiving files. Violet immediately stood out from the moment she stepped on stage, with her punk outfit and dark, glittery makeup. She moves into an apartment with a fussy yet comical landlord (freshman Ema Koka) and a strange roommate, a hauntingly sad man named Ernst Reden (senior Sylvia O’Shea). As she learns about the White Rose for the first time through the archives she sorts, so does the audience. The theater becomes a time capsule, taking the audience through the last year in the lives of Sophie Scholl (junior Phoebe Kallaher), Hans Scholl (junior Jack Reisman), Alexander Schmorell (sophomore Charles Long), Willi Graf (sophomore T Schmults) and Cristoph Probst (senior Pablo Maytorena).
The highlights began the second that the audience members entered the theater and ended with a bang in the last seconds of the show. Upon walking to their seats, the first thing that the audience notices are the leaflets taped to every wall and surface in the room. Throughout the show, powerful performances were given especially by Kallaher and Reisman, although the entire cast gave strong, emotional performances that left the audience stunned in the end. One particularly moving moment was a heartbreaking scene between Sophie and her boyfriend, Nazi party member Fritz Hartangel (junior Stanley Peng). Another standout moment was the confrontation between Traute Lafrenz (freshman Valentia Burlak) and Hans, in which Traute demanded Hans explain a love letter from Ernst, giving a performance that prompted sympathy from every person watching.
One particularly exciting element was the masterfully woven connection between the past and the future. At first, there is seemingly no connection. However, as Violet and Ernst read the old files, the audience discovers an old, heart-wrenching secret romance between Ernst and Hans. Years after both of their premature deaths, the ghost of Ernst finally receives closure with a letter from Hans, that he had never received. O’Shea gave a touching performance, holding up to the light a white carnation, given to Ernst from Hans fifty years earlier.
The fact that both stories take place in the same living room set makes the relationship between Hans and Ernst that much more bittersweet and haunting, but also points out the similarities between Violet and Sophie. Both characters are young women rebelling against the typical standards for women at their age and in their time. Sophie fights the Nazi regime, while Violet refuses to conform with society, expressing herself and her sexuality through punk.
The ending of the play was beautifully written and constructed, leaving the audience in shock. The last few minutes of the play were a tense race against time, and watching them was like watching a car crash in slow motion. Thanks to quick character biographies in the program, the audience already knows the fates of the six main characters. Yet, the final lineup of the five members of the White Rose against the back wall—their hands up and their faces turned into the light—was still striking. Traute’s perspective, as the only member of the group who managed to escape the same tragic fate, provided symbolic and somber narration for this concluding scene.
One by one, the students delivered their final words and dropped their heads as their life was cut short. The gunshots reverberated in the ears of the audience members all night.
In addition to leaving the audience speechless, “The Citizens” also brought a lot of relevance to the present day. The secret love between Hans and Ernst felt like a story of long ago, but circumstances like theirs remain relevant and sadly, this reality is not so far in the past for many people.
Violet’s and Sophie’s stories of female determination also ring true today, in the ears of many young women who are using their bravery and sharp minds to change their world in big and small ways. The story of young changemakers is a timeless and crucial one to tell. The White Rose was run by students barely older than high schoolers today, and it is important that no one ever stops reminding young people that they have the power to change the world.